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Nuclear drill meets plans, evaluators' report coming

Pierce County officials feel they're ready to protect the public if an emergency occurred at the Prairie Island Nuclear Plant near Red Wing, based on their participation in an every-other-year exercise held last week.

Although the final report of evaluators from the Department of Homeland Security isn't due for two months, Pierce Emergency Management Director Gary Brown was pleased with how activities proceeded under their observation Tuesday and Wednesday.

"It looked good," he said Thursday about the exercise involving almost 100 people, though admitting his was only a preliminary assessment.

Brown, who's now overseen the seventh such preparedness project since he became director in 1993, said he can't remember a major problem occurring at any of them. In fact, there were none during the last two exercises, in 2002 and 2004.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," he said of prospects for repeating that feat this time.

The evaluators, one of whom was from Homeland Security in Chicago and the others from a private contractor, assess major exercise flaws according to three levels, Brown said. The least is a planning issue, an example of which would be a change from the emergency plan. The second, an Area Requiring Corrective Action, might be a deviation from prescribed procedure, for instance. A deficiency is the highest level, requiring the exercise to be redone.

Tuesday's part of the exercise addressed a scenario beginning with a vehicle running into the nuclear plant, he said. That set off a series of developments taking participants through four emergency levels, intensifying in degree of seriousness. The emergency operations center in the courthouse was activated, then during the next approximately six hours officials encountered various challenges, delivered in calls and/or messages, to which they had to react.

Among the county departments represented at this local command center were public health, agriculture-related, sheriff's, human services and highway, the director said. Others were from fire and emergency services, the area's American Red Cross chapter, amateur radio, public information (also including representation at exercise headquarters in St. Paul), the county board, police services, the west central regional director and a liaison with the plant.

Evacuation was a significant aspect of the exercise, Brown said. Highway had an employee stationed at a road block; a sheriff's deputy was on a route beyond the reach of sirens to do alerting. Security at the front door was covered, message control personnel relayed information from a status board and more.

An interview session by the evaluators with local school staffers Wednesday morning was a new feature, he said. They must be ready to provide evacuation and were asked questions about equipment, supplies, buses, drivers and similar topics over an hour-and-a-half period.

They also had to demonstrate communications capabilities, as did personnel at the Elmwood reception center Wednesday evening, he said. The center in the school's gym there was set up with a monitoring station where evacuees would pass through for any radiation to be detected. If it was found, a process for these individuals to be decontaminated would be followed.

Additional stations in the Elmwood gym were staffed by such agencies as public health, area fire and emergency services, ambulance, the Red Cross and even the River Falls animal shelter helping with pet care, he said. Several youths acted as victims. An improvement for this exercise was made in directing people through, using new cone-and-chain divider equipment.

Planning for the exercise officially began with a meeting among officials from the counties affected 100 days prior to it, Brown said. Training sessions with participating individuals and groups have been held throughout the past year, however, plus feedback was given to Homeland Security department requests. A practice drill was staged in June in advance of the exercise, after which some changes for convenience, in documentation, contents of kits and the like were made in response to suggestions.

"If we can do this here, we're going to be much better prepared in the event of some other disaster that's real," he said about an advantage of exercising for the nuclear plant every other year.

Pierce is one of only three counties in Wisconsin to participate in this kind of exercise, he said. Without this, the county wouldn't have the kind of facilities and training for emergencies it does, he added.